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New Species of Titanosaurian Dinosaur Discovered in Tanzania

Sep 09, 2014 11:53 AM EDT

A new species of titanosaurian dinosaur was recently discovered in Tanzania, shedding light on a unique species that thrived during the final period of the dinosaur age.

Rukwatitan bisepultus lived approximately 100 million years ago during the middle of the Cretaceous Period. As a member of the large-bodied sauropods known as titanosaurians, R. bisepultus was undoubtedly large, possibly weighing as much as several elephants. Scientists from Ohio University unearthed the fossil in Tanzania, which makes it one of the few titanosaurian specimens recovered in Africa. Most other known examples have come from other regions, especially South America.

The scientists first spotted the fossil embedded in a cliff wall in the Rukwa Rift Basin of southwestern Tanzania. Further excavation produced the vertebrae, ribs, limbs and pelvic bones, and after performing CT scans of the remains, the research team determined that this dinosaur was unique compared to others previously discovered in parts of Africa.

(Photo : Eric Gorscak/Ohio University.) This image shows the pieces of the skeleton recovered of Rukwatitan bisepultus within a silhouette of the animal. The bar equals 1 meter.

"Using both traditional and new computational approaches, we were able to place the new species within the family tree of sauropod dinosaurs and determine both its uniqueness as a species and to delineate others species with which it is most closely related," lead author Eric Gorscak, a doctoral student in biological sciences at Ohio University, said in a statement.

According to the study, published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, titanosaurians were huge herbivores with characteristically long necks. Although R. bisepultus  was not among the largest of these types of dinosaurs, the investigators estimate that the animal's front legs were about six feet long and that it may have weighed as much as several elephants.

The researchers noted certain similarities between the newly-discovered dinosaur and another titanosaurian, Malawisaurus dixeyi, previously found in Malawi. Still, the two dinosaurs are distinctly different from one another, as well as from other titanosaurians known from northern Africa, according to study author Patrick O'Connor, a professor of anatomy in the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Thanks to the new discovery, scientists can now learn more about titanosaurians, of which only four have come from Africa, compared to 30 such fossils found in South America.

"With the discovery of Rukwatitan and study of the material in nearby Malawi, we are beginning to fill a significant gap from a large part of the world," Gorscak said.

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